One of the most challenging aspects of religious life is how to relate to the concept of revelation. The uncompromising claim by Judaism that the Torah is not a book written by man, but is the result of the most famous disclosure of God’s will to man, requires a formidable amount of faith in the face of the prevalent skepticism and secularity.
Over the last few hundred years, a major argument has emerged concerning the divinity of the Torah’s text. Since the days of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (17th century), we have witnessed numerous Bible scholars dissecting the Torah in every way possible, concluding that the traditional Jewish claim of its divinity is unfounded and farfetched.
Religious scholars have naturally responded with heavy artillery. They have written profound papers showing that the arguments of Spinoza and others were mistaken and often lacked intellectual objectivity. (1) In our day, a sincere but problematic attempt has been made by some mathematicians and Jewish outreach programs to prove the Torah’s divinity through “Torah codes,” which presumably are found within the biblical text.
But is this the right approach? If the Torah is indeed the ultimate divine word, as Judaism maintains, is it at all possible or even advisable to take an academic approach to verify its divinity? Wouldn’t the fact that it is divine make it absolutely impenetrable to academic scrutiny and proof? Isn’t this like studying inorganic phenomena by applying criteria used by scientists to study organic matter? Moreover, scholars, as well as teachers in outreach programs, should ask themselves if they are not violating the prohibition “Do not test God, your Lord…” (2)
So how should we deal with the claim that the Torah is in fact of divine origin? If it is indeed beyond the capacity of proof, what then are the ways to grasp its divinity? Why are we not as convinced as our forefathers were? Is this due to the fact that we are more knowlegable and intellectually sophisticated than they were? Many of us may be of this opinion, but we should ask ourselves if we are not guilty of self-deception.
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865), in his monumental work Haketav Vehakabbalah, seems to touch on this problem. Commenting on the quality of the revelation at Sinai, and quoting the verse “To the Israelites, the appearance of God’s glory on the mountain top was like a consuming fire (aish ochelet),” (3) the venerable rabbi asks what is meant by the expression “a consuming fire”? Doesn’t this indicate a destructive force? Why not just say that God is like fire?
Reminding us of the fact that at Sinai the entire nation of Israel had risen to the level of prophecy immediately following a life of misery and spiritual slavery, he continues:
The truth is that the people of Israel were not all equal in their spiritual level. And they did not all see or perceive the same kind of revelation at Sinai. Rather, each one was able to receive this revelational experience only in accordance with the spiritual condition of his soul. Every Jew saw something, but what he experienced was directly proportional to the preparation he had put into it. When a person was less prepared, he experienced only a minimal level of revelation at Sinai; and the one who prepared more received more. This is the meaning of “a consuming fire.” The perception of God’s greatness is exactly the same as the way fire takes holds of various objects. There are materials that are intrinsically combustible, so that when you touch them with a flame an enormous fire erupts. But there are other items that are fireproof, and when you put a flame to them nothing happens. Just as nature has made certain materials receptive to fire, so it is with the Sinai revelation. (4)
A flame grows or diminishes depending on the combustibility of the substance it touches. So it is with the Jew, and with all people. The Jew’s receptivity to the divinity of Torah is proportionate to the spiritual and emotional preparation he puts into it.
I would suggest that the reason we are confronted with so much skepticism concerning the Torah’s divinity is not because of intellectual sophistication but because of lack of spiritual receptivity, which is developed through labor of the soul. This may seem like a convenient escape when dealing with the issue at hand. But in truth, it touches on the very essence of man’s spiritual condition. As with music and art, the Torah cannot be approached from the perspective of academic learning. It is the soul’s language that is at stake. Fire cannot penetrate where no spark burns.
Aristotle once said, “The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things.” (5)
It would be wise for all parties concerned to stop trying to affirm or deny the Torah’s divinity and instead ask: Are we or are we not made of material that is combustible with the inner world of the Torah? Once we have transformed ourselves and our souls into spiritual fire, all questions concerning the Torah’s divinity may quite well become irrelevant.
(1) For a comprehensive treatment of the academic approach toward the Torah, see my books: Between Silence and Speech, chap. 10, and The Written and Oral Torah, pp. 201-233, both published by Jason Aronson. See also: www.cardozoacademy.org/Library/Studies.
(2) Devarim 6:16.
(3) Shemot 24:17.
(5) Quoted by Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (1:1:5 ad 1).
Jonathan Shine says
Dear Nathan – whilst your question is beautifully posed, you haven’t really answered it at all. You seem to be saying that those who doubt the veracity of the claim of the revelation at Sinai are lacking in their “combustibility”.
For me, the doubt comes not just from the incredulity of the claim that the Deity would write books or speak at a mountainside to a bunch of recently emancipated slaves. Rather, when I look at the actual text, I find it difficult to believe that this is the best possible collection of words that the Creator of the Universe could come up with. Whilst many parts of the Bible are interesting and some are inspiring, large sections are dull and irrelevant whilst some are downright dangerous. Furthermore, I would suggest that many of the principles described in the Bible are immoral.
When I take a look at the terrible murder of a pregnant woman in Lahore and compare this to many stories in the Tenach, I realise that my values – and probably yours – are derived from our internal moral knowledge which we have DESPITE the Bible stories, rather than them being rooted in them.
I would really like you to tackle this problem with more wisdom and less finger-pointing at the “non-believers” – I sense here a distinct lack of intellectual honesty.
I would agree with one point though. I think that it is useful to consider the origins of the Bible and the historical truth of Revelation as irrelevant. We have thousands of years of history and culture and customs – that is what is important – our Shabbat and festivals and music and food and good midot. Since the question of the Origins of the Bible is unanswerable, let us leave it unanswered and instead, focus our minds and actions on good deeds.
David Lloyd (ben Yaaocv Yehuda) Klepper says
Researchers have determined that if a person expert in just copying by hand musical scores were to copy all music for which scores of his orginal music by Mozart exist, the time required, if seven hour rest periods were included to cover eating and sleeping, would exceed the number of years between the writing of the first know Mozart composition and his death. And all his scores are cleanly written and easy for musicians to use to perform. That tells me that Mozart was devinely inspired.
Weather Moses was devinely inspired or simply acted as a secretary in recording the Eternal’s recitation is not a particularly imporant point to me. The important point is to understand that the TORAH is truly the Eternal’s letter to us, his Jewish People, and treat it with the respect and observance that it requires.
Joseph A. Bravo says
There is no “divinity” of the Torah to prove or to reject. “Divinity” is an attribute that belongs to God’s alone. That “The Torah” is God’s revelation given to men, through the channel of historical transmission or in one single bulk on Mount Sinai are different aspect of the debate but not of them invalidate the relevance of Torah for today’s word. The article is beautifully written but address none of the issues that it pretends to make relevant.
Eugene Sucov says
It is difficult to accept the assertion that the Torah is “written by God” when there are so many instances in the early chapters of Torah of crude manmade explanations for natural phenomena. Two examples are: (1)Punishments given to Eve, and thereby, all women, at the Garden of Eden; (2)Creation of man with current features rather than indicating the development of modern man.